The Monuments Men

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Denys Peter Myers ( 1916-2003 )

Librarian, museum director and architectural historian, Denys Peter Myers was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1916. His interest in ancient monuments began at the young age of eight, when he spent six months living abroad in France while his father worked for the U.S. State Department. During this time, he attended the École du Montcel, Jouy-en-Josas, becoming inspired by the great Parisian monuments such as the Palace at Versailles. He later studied art history at Harvard University, completing a Bachelor’s of Science degree in 1941 before enrolling in the Columbia University School of Library Service in New York. Before his enlistment, he worked as a reference assistant at the New York Public Library.

Myers enlisted in the U.S. Army in August 1943. One month later, he was assigned to the 30th Medical Training Battalion at Camp Grant, a Medical Replacement Training Center in Rockford, Illinois. In June 1944 Myers was transferred to the MFAA. He worked as a clerk at the headquarters of SHAEF first in London, England, then later in Versailles, France and Frankfurt, Germany. Myers analyzed incoming field reports, creating an index of war damages for France and Belgium.

On March 16, 1945, RAF incendiary bombs rained down upon Würzburg, Germany, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people and destroying much of the city. Arriving in Würzburg in June 1945, Monuments Man Lt. John D. Skilton, Jr. began the task of inspecting the city’s damaged monuments, most notably the Palais Residenz, one of the most important Baroque palaces in Europe and the town house of Bavarian princes since the early eighteenth century. During the bombings, the palace’s roof was gutted, blowing out the windows and leaving the eggshell-thin vaulted plaster ceiling containing Tiepolo’s masterpiece, Olympus and the Four Continents, exposed to the elements.

Myers arrived in July 1945 to serve as Skilton’s assistant. Acutely aware of the importance of the Palais Residenz and its art, Myers and Skilton boarded up the windows and covered the vaulted ceiling with tar paper and wood. Their greatest obstacle was the procurement of lumber, a highly sought-after commodity following the extensive devastation of the city. On many occasions, these two Monuments Officers had to fend off others intent on acquiring the precious lumber for their own respective uses, including the Bürgermeister of Wurzburg and the U.S. Army. Skilton and Myers cleverly negotiated a trade with the army, swapping lumber for cut planks, which they floated down the river at great peril. Their next task was assembling a labor force, which required hiring former members of the Nazi Party despite the Allies’ denazification policy. Today, the Würzburg Residence with the Court Gardens and Residence Square is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, surviving largely in part to the quick and resourceful work of two Monuments Men.

Following his return to the United States in 1946, Myers worked as an instructor at Hunter College (City University of New York) while completing his Master’s degree from Columbia University. Myers held prominent leadership positions at numerous American museums, including the Zanesville Museum of Art (1947-55), the Philbrook Museum of Art (1955-58), the Des Moines Art Center (1958-59), the Baltimore Museum of Art (1959-64), and the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association at the Athenaeum (1964-66). He also gave lectures as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, Catholic University of America, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Myers worked periodically with the National Park Service between 1968 and 1985, serving as the agency’s principal architectural historian and a leader of the Historic American Buildings Survey, a project devoted to documenting the history of American architecture through historical drawings, photographs, and written histories. An expert on nineteenth-century gas lighting and the architect Isaiah Rogers, his publications include The Historic Architecture of Maine (1975) and Gas Lighting in America: A Pictorial Survey, 1815-1910 (1990).

Myers was a founding member and director of the Society of Architectural Historians, a member of the advisory committee of the American Architectural Foundation, and President of the Alexandria Library Company. He also held memberships with numerous cultural clubs and organizations, including the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Alexandria Association, the Preservation Round Table, and the Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C.

Denys Myers died in Alexandria, Virginia in 2003.